I have a small oval magnet on the back of my car with a drawing of a large dog catching a ball that reads, "Make time for play." More than one person has commented on what they have taken to be an ironic statement by a workaholic who rarely makes time for fun. But that’s precisely why it’s there—to remind me of the importance of taking time every day to just enjoy, have fun, play! One of my hopes for my road trip has been to do just that. . .and New Orleans at Mardi Gras seemed just the place to give it my best shot.
My second day in New Orleans began with breakfast with the other guests at Marigny Manor, the elegant pre Civil War B&B where we were staying. While I stuck to my daily bright green concoction of sheep yogurt, vegetable powder and chia seeds that prompts so much humor among my friends, the other guests helped themselves to a delicious frittata along with a slice of King Cake—a brightly-colored ring of dough that has been a Mardi Gras tradition for centuries. Although none of us found the baby baked into the cake, which would have determined the next person to throw a Mardi Gras party, we did connect with one another enough to make plans to get together again when I hopefully visit each of their hometowns on my book tour in 2015. Talking about my parents’ cookbook became the impetus for a lovely conversation during which each of the guests shared their own food recommendations and experiences, both in New Orleans as well as in their hometowns of Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington DC.
Listening to their enthusiastic stories about the places they love to eat, I was reminded of why A Treasury of Great Recipes became so popular—because sharing a meal, partaking in the communal joy of eating something delicious, is a daily reminder to connect with one another and with life in a joyful way. For someone who usually eats alone standing up over the kitchen counter with only the hopeful upturned faces of my dogs at my feet for company, it was a reminder a needed. At its best, sharing a meal can and should be a kind of daily communion with others and with life.
After breakfast, we headed out for our day, reveling in the warm springlike weather. As we wandered down Royal Street in search of the vintage Mardi Gras beads made of Czech or Hungarian glass that our host had described at breakfast—I photographed magnolia trees in bloom, wrought iron railings, and Mardi Gras decor, enjoying all the details that make this beautiful city so unique.
Our destination was Antoine’s, the oldest family-run restaurant in the United States. As we rounded the corner on St Louis Street, we saw that a line had already formed outside the doors in anticipation of Antoine’s famous Sunday brunch—which we eagerly joined.
When the doors opened, we were escorted through the gleaming white front room, past a jazz combo briskly playing Mardi Gras standards, to the cavernous dimly lit second room whose walls are filled with mementoes of all the dignitaries who have dined at Antoine’s over the years. As we sat down at our two-top, we did so to the Kodacolor smiles of Don Knotts and Neil Diamond on the column beside us. Immediately we were warmly greeted by our server, Charley, who proved to be Shannon’s equal in his enthusiasm for and knowledge about his dining establishment and its cuisine.
I showed Charley the cookbook so we could see what items were still on the menu. Almost all of them were, and he particularly enjoyed comparing the prices. After he expertly guided us through the menu, we settled on two appetizers—their famous Oysters Rockefeller and the Shrimp Remoulade, his favorite. Although I enjoyed the oysters and their famous special sauce, it was the remoulade that was the revelation. I had been expecting a twist on the usual iced shrimp with a tomatoey cocktail sauce. But these fresh Louisiana shrimp were served over a bed of lettuce with a sauce that deftly combined tomato, horseradish and other spices. It was perfect! For our entrees we chose the Soft Shell Crab on a bed of creamed spinach with Bernaise sauce and Charley’s favorite, Crevettes and Grites. I adore soft shell crab, but I prefer it pan fried and not breaded, so while this was a tasty dish, it was ultimately a bit too heavy for my taste. The shrimp and grits, however, were a revelation. Fresh shrimp cooked in a light tomato and white wine reduction, blended into a large dish of creamy grits. My dad always used to say that you couldn’t go wrong with grits, and I have always agreed. Eating grits is one of the great perks of visiting the South as far as I am concerned. But this dish took them to a whole new level. Creamy, flavorful, decadently rich, if my mother hadn’t taught me to mentally count every calorie that goes into my mouth, I would have finished the entire bowl, licked it clean, and ordered more to go. Antoine’s grits could definitely be my next venal sin. As it is, they are my new definition of Comfort Food—because after eating a bowl of them, you feel like curling up in a deliriously happy food coma for the rest of the day.
According to Charley, no trip to Antoine’s is complete without a tour of the premises. I loved peeking into the ornate private dining rooms, each with a different and striking decor, as well as taking in the museum-like displays of old Menus and ashtrays collected from around the world. Charley particularly recommended that we visit the wine cellar, which is the second largest in the United States. Viewed through a brick-arched glass window with ornate wooden bars, the long tunnel of bottles seems to go on forever. As I stood there, I had the funniest feeling of deja vu, but as this was my first visit to New Orleans, I knew I could never have been there before. And then I realized that, in one of my favorite pics of my dad, he is standing in front of a wine cellar. Could it have been this one? A quick perusal of cookbook revealed it was—and so my day at Antoine's ended with a photo of me in the exact same place my father had stood fifty years earlier!
We had planned to escape the hustle and bustle of Mardi Gras with a boat tour of the Bayou, which I had glimpsed from the Interstate bridges as we drove toward the city. A 40-minute bus ride took us over the vast waters of Lake Ponchatrain, through the areas most devastated by Hurricane Katrina, to a quiet preserve just outside the city. We joined 20 other guests on our skiff, as our knowledgeable captain guided us through the bayou. For someone who lives in a landlocked state with precious little water, spending two hours on a river on a sunny springlike day was pure heaven. As we floated through cypress groves dripping with Spanish moss, we saw alligators, bald eagles, wild boar, jumping fish and learned all about the indigenous plant and wildlife of the area. It was utterly magical—everything I had imagined and more.
Our plan for the evening was to return for a light meal and then a quick view of that night’s Mardi Gras parade, before heading back early to the room. Neither of those things happened. After walking for what felt like 20 blocks, we ended up at a cheerful family-style Cajun restaurant called Mulate’s, where the idea of light food was anathema. Plates full of grilled alligator, seafood gumbo, and shrimp with fries were soon piled on our table, and an hour later, I stumbled out onto the street feeling that I should run a mini-marathon to work off everything I'd consumed in New Orleans.
Our fellow B&B guests had made us feel that if we didn't see at least a portion of a parade, it would have been as if we had never been to Mardi Gras at all. So we found a quiet spot outside Emeril's restaurant and settled in with a cheerful group of families, recent college grads and army veterans to wait for Bacchus, one of the most popular and well-attended Mardi Gras parades. When it still hadn’t reached us n hour later I almost packed it in. But just then police car sirens announced that the fun was about to begin. And what fun it proved to be!
Because we were on a smaller street, we were not stuck behind concrete barricades, but rather spilling off the sidewalks. The moment the first marching band came by, I knew I was hooked! I suddenly realized that, although I had been to a few local parades, I had never been to a real one, with marching bands and giant floats! Who can resist the throb of trombones and tubas, the primordial call of a bass drum, and the uninhibited abandon of the dancers that are a Southern marching band? It was impossible not to be drawn in. When the Budweiser wagon went by, I felt like a little kid seeing the giant Clydesdales and the proud Dalmatian go by. But that was just the beginning, because the real fun of these parades are the floats.
They are massive and festive and ridiculously fun, each featuring a giant cartoon-like figure representing some aspect of Louisiana life—crawfish, Catahoula dogs, wild boar, alligators! But here’s what I didn’t know: On each float, colorfully dressed and masked men and women spend the evening throwing beads, stuffed animals, miniature footballs, bags, and other goodies out to the crowd, who is driven into a frenzy by the prospect of collecting all this cool stuff!
Here are three words I love: Swag, fun, and competition. Are you kidding me? These floats were made for me! I quickly discovered that my long arms and all those mornings playing catch in the driveway with my dad could be put to good use for grabbing beads out of mid air right in front of my fellow revelers. Within minutes, uptight teetotaling me was laughing, waving, dancing and scrambling for loot as enthusiastically as any of the folks who were going to wake up the next morning a little worse for the wear.
Everyone got into the spirit—sharing our loot, comparing our hauls, figuring out the best approach to get the fun stuff. Cynthia took a tactical approach, alternating between standing at the back of the sidewalk to get the larger bags of beads thrown at the crowds to running up and earning the more desired prizes only gotten by charming the floatmasters. When she scored two of the much-coveted Bacchus bags in which to store our haul, all of our fellow parade viewers were impressed. We stayed right to the end, and enjoyed every minute of it. Festooned with beads and hauling even more in our bags, we walked back to our B&B well after midnight on streets spilling over with people rife with post-parade enthusiasm.
Back in the room, as we divvied up our loot like kids after Halloween, I felt as thought I had undergone a religious conversion: I had spent a lifetime avoiding Mardi Gras like the plague, only to discover that, done right, it is a Mecca for joy, and a reminder that everyone--even (or maybe especially) workaholic WASPs like me—need to remember to throw off their corsets and caution to the wind, and remember that life is not life at all if we don’t remember to make time to play.
Somewhere the man who taught me the meaning of fun by riding with me on rollie coasters and playing countless amusement park games of chance, who brought me on deep sea fishing excursions and taught me how to make Saturday morning pancakes, is smiling and saying to himself and anyone who will listen, "It's about damn time!”
It is about damn time—and thank goodness it’s not too late!